In Memoriam – American Tenor Hannibal Means

Larger than life on Vienna stages, he was equally master of opera and jazz: “Walking is for losers,” he would say. “I’m gonna fly.”

If you met, or listened to, or better yet, simply watched Hannibal Means mesmerize and beguile an audience, you became part of a very distinct time in Vienna’s post-1945 history. 

Hannibal Means spent the first 35 years of his life in Oakland, California, before landing in the very different, straitlaced atmosphere of Austria’s traditional music capital. Once installed in Vienna, Hannibal deployed his very special gifts – above all his soaring tenor voice, but also an enormous, almost tyrannical, hold on his listeners – to show the Viennese what Black American music could mean. 

In this Vienna of the early/mid 1980s, what passed for a good time was often young people congregated in the Café Hawelka, engaged in passionate intellectual squabbles. Hannibal brought musical heft and hilarity to the mix, and by happy coincidence of timing, was able to partner effectively with the bar and club owner Michael Satke to give Vienna its own “Bermuda Triangle.” 

With the flamboyant Californian at the piano, sitting like an exotic creature in a ray of light on the raised stage of the “Roter Engel” music club, those previously dead Sunday evenings became the venue for the Viennese to literally let their hair down, to sing along and clap off-beat through the night…  

A truly Vienna sensation, Hannibal was often invited to add a spark to worthy, if dull, Austrian celebrations at the State Opera, Konzerthaus or Musikverein. 

My husband, Russian pianist and composer Sergei Dreznin, toured with Hannibal in the 1990s and knew him well. Recently returned to Vienna after 23 years, we were looking forward to renewing our bond with Hannibal, who in recent years had spent time back in California and also in Poland (largely off limits to extravagant Black musicians in Iron Curtain days.)

Alas, a live reunion was not to be – Hannibal passed away in February 10, just 6 days before his 70th birthday. 

So this past weekend we joined 30 or so of Hannibal’s family and friends for an uplifting hour at his memorial service. Right from the first note that sounded of a Means rendering of “And That Good News”,  yes, Hannibal, we did it right – not coming in on the first, but on the second beat, your daughter Samira made sure of that. 

A few of the Black women in your life showed up too, those who in past decades had shared your sometime loneliness as an artist of color in a welcoming but also bigoted society. A couple who had asked you, Hannibal, to bring a special touch to their wedding, came to offer thanks. 

The determinedly ascetic plain wooden crematorium overlooked the rolling landscape of Stockerau, as Hannibal’s body joined the natural beauty and the history of one of Europe’s historic battlegrounds, in this case the nearby hills lining the Danube, where Jan Sobieski and his troops beat back the Ottoman Turks and thus preserved this land for Roman Catholics in religious hostilities that simmer to this day…

But this was not a ceremony built on enmity. Hannibal and his mourners emphasized love. When we returned home, we found again the basketful of little figures that Hannibal had offered up back in 1992, when I was expecting our daughter while covering the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war. They were champagne corks he had painted and dressed with wooly hair and chubby arms one afternoon, singing and philosophizing as he went. We have taken them and many other tschotchkes four times across the Atlantic now, all in that same quest for life and music that first brought us to Hannibal Means. 

In modern parlance, you might dub Hannibal a “great communicator”. While he had oceans of charisma under his multicolored robes, his was not a conventional talent. He made it eventually to the semifinals of “America’s Got Talent,” and was duly lauded. But he did not win there, and continued to spend more time in Europe. 

So here he was again, sailing through the Innere Stadt in one of his famous billowing robes and when greeted with a friendly “Have a nice day, Hannibal!” replied with his signature fortissimo cantande “I AM the nice day!.”

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Alison Smale
Alison Smale is a British journalist who was based in Vienna from 1987 to 1998 as Associated Press Bureau Chief for Eastern Europe covering the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the war in Yugoslavia. She went on to be Deputy Foreign Editor of The New York Times, Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune, and the chief correspondent for The New York Times for Germany and Central and Eastern Europe. She is now back in Vienna following two years as US Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications.

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